The first person to walk on the Moon was Neil Armstrong. I knew this before I knew how to speak English or knew how to spell his name. Why did the 8-year-old me know this? Why do we need a frontman for everything? And how do you build a team in such a culture?

Are you a team player?

Have you ever been asked this question? Did you notice that etiquette rules determine how to answer it. We are not supposed to wing it, we are supposed to know the answer by heart. You first firmly say “yes” and then add a vague, but believable proof of your ability to perform exceptionally inside a team. A million articles on the internet explain how to answer in a sophisticated, educated way, without revealing anything personal.

Google search: are you a team player

These articles generally do not criticize the question, but they also do not encourage their readers to be sincere when answering. Maybe they consider the people asking this question to be so out of sync with reality that they will not notice they received no answer. And maybe they are right. This question has no point.

Humans are social beings. Except for a few jackasses, psychopaths and narcissists, the rest of us would love being the most amazing team player. But, are you sure you will reward us if we decide that the team is more important than our own success?

Who is rewarded in your company?

A few years ago, I was assigned to a new team at a new company. There were 4 of us and initially, we had few problems working together. As with any new team, we spent the first few months getting to know each other and accommodating each other’s ways of working. But soon it became obvious, that while 3 of us have managed to adjust to life in this new team, one of us couldn’t. One of us would repeatedly come into conflict with other team members. But because managing people is complicated and not being thought enough it took the team’s manager one year to decide to interfere. What is more, the intervention came in the form of a promotion. This person, who made 3 other people suffer for a year and was eroding away their motivation to work, to produce, was given a new title and his own team. True, it was a team of 1, but it was a promotion nevertheless.

Don’t get me wrong, the 3 of us were very pleased with our team’s shrinkage. We became more connected, more motivated and happier. But, looking at the effect on the whole company, such promotions very effectively undermine teamwork. On the one hand, they set the precedent that being a jackass will open up doors for you. On the other, they beg the question, have the managers in this company been promoted to their current positions, because they are good managers or because there is a team of 3 people somewhere, who just weren’t able to work with this person anymore?

The biggest detriment to teamwork

Managers guide and determine the culture of your company. Like it or not, managers act like referees in your teams. They decide, what to praise and what to criticize. On a larger scale, with promotions and firings, and on the smaller scale with everyday comments or the lack of them. If somebody is undermining a team and the manager does nothing about it, this manager will be seen as incompetent.

Contrary to how Holywood often depicts bosses, people do not perform best in hostile environments. We perform best in psychologically safe environments.

In hostile environments actions are expensive, one wrong step can mean you are going to be publicly attacked, ridiculed and insulted. Creativity is thus thrown out of the window, taking risks becomes a stupid thing to do and teamwork is dead.

The researchers W. Felps, T. Mitchell and E. Byington have studied the effect of having a bad apple in a team and found that this dramatically diminishes the team’s output. Dealing with conflicts that arise

consumes inordinate amounts of time, psychological resources, and emotional energy

The behaviour of the negative members undermines “perceptions of equity, mood, and trust”. Instead of focusing on the work, people waste time dealing with the trouble maker, which makes them anything but happy and satisfied with their workplace.

The researches C. Pearson, L.Andersson and C.Porath published the results of their study on this topic in 2000 and have concluded that:

More than one-third of [the people surveyed] reported that they intentionally reduced their commitment to the organization as a result of being a target of uncivil behaviour. They disengaged from tasks and activities that went beyond their job specifications. Through all phases of our study, people told us that after being targets they ceased voluntary efforts. Some stopped helping newcomers, others stopped offering assistance to colleagues. Additionally, targets reduced their contributions to the organization as a whole, whether by pulling themselves off of task forces and committees, or by reducing efforts to generate or inspire innovation.

Nearly one-fourth of [the people surveyed] admitted that they intentionally decreased work efforts [..]. They stopped doing their best. Some also purposefully decreased the amount of time they spent at work.

Don’t underestimate the effect of a psychologically unsafe environment. There are no benefits to it. The company loses out on great work and the people lose out on their quality of life. In today’s job market with ample opportunities, there is generally no reason for a developer to stay with a team that makes her hate Mondays.

If we want to have great teams, that do incredible work, we have to make sure destructive behaviour is discouraged, prevented and disciplined. It should especially not be tolerated from the company’s power elite, because it can create an association between power and incivility. Learning a manager experienced no repercussion after being uncivil to an employee, spurs questions like: Can I ever become a manager if I keep being kind and respectful?

What about personalities, what about different cultures and backgrounds?

Surely, not everybody is suited to work with everybody?

When depicting a successful team, we usually assign roles to people. We might think that we need 1 leader, the others should follow. Then we need 1 smart person, 1 brave person, … The team members have to share strong team motivation and have a preference for the same type of action. But studies do not support this view.

In 2010, remarkable research was published by a group of psychologists from Carnegie Mellon, M.I.T. and Union College. They set out to find factors for a team’s success rate, a team’s “collective intelligence” or collective IQ, so to speak.

The researchers recruited 699 people and organized them into groups of 2-5. Then they gave them a series of assignments with an emphasis on collaboration.

Interestingly, the groups, which did well on any one of the assignments, tended to do well on all assignments. Even more interestingly, many of the factors, we would generally associate with a successful team, like team satisfaction, team cohesion, team motivation or the individual intelligence of the team’s members, were not correlated to the group’s collective intelligence.

When the same task was done by groups, however, the average individual intelligence of the group members was not a significant predictor of group performance

The study’s results identified three factors that constitute group intelligence:

  • how well the group’s members react to each other’s social cues
  • whether each team member gets an equal time slot to speak
  • how many women there are on the team (probably, because studies have shown women to be better at reading social cues)

First, there was a significant correlation between [group intelligence] and the average social sensitivity of group members (r = 0.26, P =0.002). Second, [group intelligence] was negatively correlated with the variance in the number of speaking turns by group members (r=–0.41, P=0.01). In other words, groups where a few people dominated the conversation were less collectively intelligent than those with a more equal distribution of conversational turn-taking. Finally, c was positively and significantly correlated with the proportion of females in the group (r=0.23, P=0.007).

This same research was later collaborated by Google when they conducted their own statistical analysis of their own teams. In 2012 Google started Project Aristotle, with which they were trying to figure out what made some teams successful and others not.

After collecting and analyzing a year’s worth of data about more than 100 teams, they couldn’t find any real pattern. Until they started looking at the team dynamic through the eyes of psychological safety.

One Google engineer from a successful team described his team lead as “direct and straightforward, which creates a safe space for you to take risks”. Another Google engineer, from a less successful team, told his team lead has “poor emotional control.”, “He panics over small issues and keeps trying to grab control. I would hate to be driving with him being in the passenger seat, because he would keep trying to grab the steering wheel and crash the car.”

By looking at all the answers again through the lens of social dynamics, Google found that psychological safety was by far the most important criteria differentiating effective and non-effective teams. In the end, a team’s effectiveness was not correlated to how senior the people on the team are, how intro- or extraverted, how educated or which programming skills they possess. What matters is how the team members care for each other.

Some teams in an organization will be successful and others will not. The later are governed by the team members with poor social skills. To improve a team’s dynamic, better social skills need to be developed, people have to start giving social interactions more value. This, however, is not something that can be achieved by sending them to after-work drinks or to the yearly Christmas party.

Truth is, we see work as the professional realm. A place away from the broader society, a place we only show about 10% of our actual self. Which is ludicrous. Given that on average we sleep 8 hours, work 8 hours and relax for 8 hours, we spend about 50% of our waking hours at work. Are we really prepared to pretend we are robots for half of our life? A machine with no desires, no wishes, no thoughts outside of the company’s goals?

As a society, we might not yet be emotionally mature enough to be able to handle emotions at work, our own and those of the others. But just because we might refuse to handle them, does not mean we don’t all come to work with broad emotional needs. The relationships we form at work affect our motivations, our health, our self-esteem. We start our days with work and then the stress or satisfaction we experienced at work affect the way we treat our family and friends later in the day.

I always found that knowledge is power. Knowing what affects and motivates you and also what affects and motivates others around you is like a power-up. Suddenly you have access to this whole other dimension. Suddenly you see, how things are connected, you see that the information was always there, things were always clear and logical, it was just you, who decided to keep your eyes closed.

How team-spirit works amongst the Kaulong people of New Britain, Papua New Guinea

A few years ago, I read a marvellous book called The World Until Yesterday by Jared Diamond. I love it because (unless you are all about anthropology) it broadens your perspective. It explores how tribal people live, how they approach essential human problems, from health and diet to conflict resolution and language. These traditional societies offer a window into how our ancestors lived for most of human history.

Here we might be talking about teamwork and team goals and team contributions. But under the surface, we are all allowed and encouraged to advance ourselves at the cost of the team. Especially, when at work, we are to increase our company’s profit, even when that has detrimental effects on our own communities. Money, prestige, influence come before relationships and people. Just as work is to be started in the morning and be finished before we can play with our kids.

The only reason we are talking about “How to build teams in companies” is because it has been shown that teams create more profit for the companies than individual contributors do. We are so accustomed to thinking in this more-profit-more-profit mentality that we might forget at times, that we didn’t always live this way.

In the aforementioned book, there is a reference to the works of Jane Goodale, an anthropologist, who spent a lot of time with tribes in Oceania and Australia in the 2nd half of the 20th century. While living with the Kaulong people of New Britain she watched a group of children play. The children were given a bunch of bananas, enough so that each of them could have one. Instead of each eating their own banana, the children each took one banana, opened it and ate half of it. Then they gave the other half to another child in the group and received half of that child’s banana in return. Then they split the received half into 2 equal parts, ate one and offered the other to another child. This game went on for 5 cycles until the children were passing around the last piece (\(\frac{1}{32}\) of a banana).

This is how the Kaulong teach their children to share, to not seek advantage for themselves.

So, are you a team player?

Yes and no.

I can play in a team really well, but I haven’t yet seen many places, where this would be an advantage. As much as I really like helping and like building a welcoming community, it makes no sense for me to do it if this is not appreciated and reciprocated. I have been a good student of our society.

As long as we obsess over individual people, who singlehandedly and completely alone ;) did some great stuff, sacrificing myself for the team just isn’t the smart thing to.

We all respect the rules of the system. Let’s say your company has quarterly bonuses, which are paid out to individual contributors on the basis of whether or not these individual people have fulfilled their own individual goals. I just don’t see, what would motivate these individuals to put the team first, above their bonuses.

It is difficult to say, how we ended up so obsessed with individual contributors. Why is it that we can’t, at the very least, see the people, who helped our hero along the journey. Nobody ever made it on their own, no matter what people tell you or tell themselves. But equally true is, that nobody ever fought the system on their own.

How to create a psychologically safe environment?

In theory, what should be done is pretty straightforward.

I think that the first necessary step is to make the research mentioned above common knowledge. There are probably several people in your organization, who already have the traits needed to form a successful team. But if the general culture of your organization does not support such skills, then they will not show this side of themselves. You want your employees to cherish and use their people skills, not hide them.

The second step is that your organization publicly and privately emphasises that this is the objective, you are striving for. The Code of Conduct documents are a nice feature. Not because they are a miracle solution, we must all agree with, but because they gently nudge people into the desired mind frame. As a plus, once uncivil behaviour happens, it is much easier to penalize someone, if you can calmly point towards a written document and say “look, you’ve broken our rule”.

From here on, we are starting to build a community. And communities are always lead by example. Thus the following guidelines are meant for the team and company leaders.

Encourage open discussions, ask others what they think about the proposed plan. Encourage questions. Particularly about jargon words and insider stories. This is best done when a senior person asks for these words to be explained. Talk freely with your team members.

Ask, how you can help. Hold open and honest 1-on-1s. Generally, people have to feel very, very pressured before they will go to their supervisor and complain. Behind every complaint, you ever received there were several attempts to complain, which never reached you. Be proactive at finding problems in the team dynamic, ask concrete questions on how your team members find this or that.

Sometimes it is useful to define the rules for a meeting. I used to be present on a quarterly engineering retrospective with 15 engineers present. And to streamline the conversation we agreed that each engineer had 3 minutes to present her points. In the end, we would agree upon the expected actions for each raised point.

Trust your teammates and ensure that they trust each other as well. Nobody should be policing the rest of the team. Having a team member, who unprompted, keeps double-checking the work of others, is a dreadful experience. Believe me, been there, done that.

At the time there were 3 teams in my engineering department. All of them were doing great when a very senior person was called upon to assist us. He came from a separate branch of the company and wanted to work on something new. He was extremely respected in the company and was trusted to pick his own assignments. Immediately after joining us, he decided that his time will be best spent by double-checking all of our work. He would block our open pull requests by either leaving comments about insignificant implementation details or long explanations of basic programming concepts, which he deemed we misused. Because he was trusted, he decided to singlehandedly change the programming guidelines we were following, which we would only notice once the checks on our pull requests would fail. You can imagine, we had a really hard time staying motivated. This person dominated our mind, whenever 2 or more of us would meet, we would sooner or later end up discussing his actions. Before we would often discuss programming related topics, we would try to improve our work environment and grow as developers, now, we would only vent about this one person. And by the way, this senior developer is actually a great person. He just doesn’t trust other developers. Just because somebody is a good friend, doesn’t mean he is a good co-worker.

Depending on a company’s state, setting up a psychologically great environment can be difficult or easy. Looking at it from another perspective, we are perfectly capable of keeping relationships outside of work. Keeping work relationships healthy works in the same way. It is no more difficult than the rest of our lives.

The companies, which succeed in creating great work environments are rewarded with employees who produce better work and stay with the company longer. And the employees in such companies are rewarded with being happier, living longer, having better self-esteem and sharing this life satisfaction with family and friends.

Happier life